At first glance, the 2012 Memphis Redbirds season is one from which most fans will turn quickly away. With roster fluctuation in April and May — due to injuries with the parent club in St. Louis — the club got off to a dreadful start (two nine-game losing streaks) and never fully recovered. Through Sunday the team’s record stood at 47-82. Seven more losses would yield the most in the franchise’s 15-year history.
Take pause, though, and remember every minor-league team is charged primarily with developing players, not necessarily winning championships. Among the players climbing that development ladder in 2012 has been Adron Chambers, the 25-year-old centerfielder on the verge of his third big-league promotion.
A September call-up in 2011 (after big-league rosters expanded beyond the standard 25-player limit), Chambers played a small but significant role in the Cardinals’ unlikely run to the franchise’s 11th world championship. His first major-league hit was an extra-inning game-winning single at Philadelphia, then eight days later Chambers scored the game-winning run against Chicago as a pinch runner. Considering St. Louis qualified for the postseason only by winning its final regular-season game (accompanied by an Atlanta loss), every game-winning hit or run was critical. So Chambers earned his World Series ring.
“A lot of guys play their whole career, dreaming of doing what I got to do,” says Chambers. “It was a lot of fun, a lot of adrenaline. [Cardinal manager] Tony LaRussa was saying, ‘Enjoy the moments.’ No one said Adron had to do this, or had to hit this pitch. As long as we each gave it all we’ve got. Before I hit that [bases-loaded] triple [against the Mets], [Cardinal batting coach] Mark McGwire said, ‘You’re gonna do it, right here.’
“That World Series taught me how to love the game, how to cheer my teammates. It gave me a new passion for baseball. People were telling me, you may never see a moment like this again.”
As unlikely as the Cardinals’ championship run may have been, Adron Chambers wearing a big-league uniform may be just as astonishing. As a star high school quarterback in Pensacola, Florida, Chambers was recruited by Mississippi State and signed with the Bulldogs. But during his sophomore season (2006), Chambers was arrested and charged with attempted sexual battery. He was dismissed from the team and MSU. (Chambers later pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of indecent exposure.)
“My [football] coach at Mississippi State, Sylvester Croom, told me something when I left,” reflects Chambers. “He said, ‘Everybody has a book. You wrote this into your book. Now it’s up to you, what goes into the rest of it.’ I need to understand the things I can control, and be humble enough to accept the things I can’t.”
In 2007, the Cardinals took a chance and drafted Chambers in the 38th round. In 2009, he hit .283 at Class-A Palm Beach with 16 triples. A year later, he hit .282 at Double-A Springfield and .290 in 37 games for Memphis. As the Redbirds’ everyday centerfielder in 2011, Chambers hit .277 and led the club with 22 stolen bases. And this season, through Sunday, he’s hit .310. (Chambers played in 23 games for the Cardinals earlier this season, when Jon Jay was shelved by a shoulder injury.) More confident every year, Chambers now sees the so-called “little things” as critical to making him a complete player.
“Never take a day off,” he says. “Sprinting on and off the field. Warming up before the game, hitting my cutoff man. You have to be locked in. My coaches tell me to be locked in for three hours a day. Whether it’s in the outfield or on the bases, or at the plate. Try and do something to help the team win. Man on first base, nobody out . . . I’m getting that guy to second base. I can bunt; I’ve got speed.” Ironically, Cardinal coaches have leaned on Chambers to be more of a base-stealing threat. (He’s stolen only nine this season.) Once known for their “rabbits,” the Cardinals have had but one player steal as many as 20 bases over the last eight seasons.
Between Memphis and St. Louis, Chambers has played for four managers over the last two seasons: Chris Maloney and Pop Warner at AutoZone Park, LaRussa and Mike Matheny in St. Louis. And Chambers has absorbed as much of the fabled “Cardinal Way” as he can. “Tony always said to make every pitch count. Mike will have your back, through thick and thin. He understands the process, the media. But it’s about winning. And Pop brings confidence. He believes in himself. And he’ll see things I don’t and point them out. You can learn something new in this game every day.”
It would seem there are several chapters left to write in the Adron Chambers book. The next will likely come when the Cardinals make their September promotions and, ring metaphorically on hand, Chambers contributes to another pennant chase. “A lot of guys have had the opportunity, made it to the major leagues, and then let it slip out of their hands,” he says. “I come here every day with positive energy. I’ve been playing long enough now to know the kind of ballplayer I am.”
The month of August can be tough for a sports fan. Baseball season is in “dog-days” mode, the pennant races not quite what they’ll be in September. Football season is oh-so-close, but NFL preseason games are the sorriest excuse for professional sports known to man. Aside from team sports (and I won’t forget the Little League World Series), we have . . . the PGA Championship (congrats to Rory McIlroy), the stepchild among golf’s majors.
The London Olympics helped this year, though the saturation of coverage by NBC drowned me like a lame water-polo goalie. (Bless water polo. Honestly, it’s my favorite summer-Olympics sport to watch.) Here we are, still three weeks of August left before college football season kicks off. How barren is August for a sports fan? If I were ranking months by the quality of sports available, it would look like this:
1) October — All I need is the World Series. For the rest of you, NFL and college football in full flight.
2) June — FESJC, U.S. Open golf, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup final ... and baseball.
3) May — Kentucky Derby, Indy 500, NBA/NHL playoffs ... and baseball.
4) January — NFL playoffs, college football’s major bowls.
5) April — Baseball’s Opening Day, the Masters.
6) March — Madness.
7) July — Wimbledon, the British Open ... and baseball.
8) September — Football season starts, U.S. Open tennis, baseball pennant races.
9) December — NFL playoff drive, Liberty Bowl.
10) November — NBA season opens, college football’s rivalry games.
11) February — Super Bowl (belongs in January) and Daytona 500.
12 August — Here we are.
I’ve come to believe there’s a cosmic factor to the August sports blues, for the 11th of the month happens to be my beloved wife’s birthday. For at least one month, my attention shifts where it should.
• Last week’s column was devoted to the five Memphis Grizzlies finalists in my “Face of the Franchise” series (daily via Twitter). Two candidates — Tony Allen and Shane Battier — had credentials built largely on the spirit they helped inspire as role players for playoff teams. Two others — Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay — qualified with stellar play over five-plus years, their numbers near the top of the franchise’s alltime charts.
The fifth candidate is the Face of the Franchise, in large part because he embodies much of the qualities the other four delivered. Zach Randolph has been an All-Star, All-NBA (third team), and among the NBA’s scoring and rebounding leaders. Just as important, he’s been the muscle (if not face) behind the “Grit and Grind” mantra Allen coined during the 2011 playoff run. Z-Bo is as much Memphis now as he is Grizzly. The guy publicly supports a pit-bull rescue mission, for crying out loud. Perfect metaphor for Randolph’s career path and performance over three seasons here.
• Sports greatness is entirely too subjective. Was Johnny Unitas really a better quarterback than Joe Montana? Could Muhammad Ali — boxing’s “GOAT” — have beaten Joe Louis?
But there’s nothing subjective about a clock, or a footrace. Which makes Usain Bolt one of the defining athletes of this young century. The memory I’ll carry with me from the 2012 London Olympics will be watching — beyond question — the fastest human being ever to lace up a pair of track shoes. Two-time Olympic champion in both sprints? And the world-record holder in each? That reads like cheap fiction. Bolt will surely be the athlete of the year. Come 2099, he’ll be a candidate for Athlete of the Century.
Here’s the easiest sports question you’ll be asked all year: Measured in historical terms, who is the face of the New York Yankees? Love Mickey Mantle or Derek Jeter all you might, but the answer’s Babe Ruth. And it will always be the answer for this Face of the Franchise.
Now, let’s try another. Who is the face of the Chicago White Sox? Or the Washington Redskins?
Since early June (via Twitter), I’ve been naming — on a daily basis — the Face of the Franchise for every major professional team in America. (The list is being presented in alphabetical order, by team nickname.) I’ve worked my way through Major League Baseball (easy Face: Atlanta Braves) and the NFL (hard Face: Atlanta Falcons). This week I reached the NBA, and this Sunday I’ll be tweeting the Face of the Memphis Grizzlies. This Face selection won’t be as easy as it was for the Kansas City Royals, but shouldn’t be as hard as it was for the Arizona Cardinals.
I’ve narrowed our beloved NBA franchise’s Face down to five candidates (presented here in alphabetical order). Note that this is a players-only list. Sorry Hubie.
• TONY ALLEN — It’s not so much numbers or service (Allen has only played here two seasons), but a vibe with this defense-first two guard. He’s without question the face of the mantra (“Grit and Grind”) that took hold during the Grizzlies’ 2011 playoff run and seems to have stuck for good. If a Face of the Franchise embodies the way we view a team in general, Allen’s the pick.
• SHANE BATTIER — Somehow, even as a rookie during the dreadful inaugural Memphis season (2001-02), Battier made you feel dignified as a Griz fan. Perhaps it was his lingering Duke pedigree (he was the Face of the 2001 NCAA champs). He moved to the bench without complaint for the 2003-04 squad, the first in franchise history to reach the playoffs. Upon his return to Memphis after almost five seasons in Houston, Battier helped fuel the Grizzlies’ return to the playoffs, and even hit the game-winning shot in the franchise’s first postseason win.
• PAU GASOL — The most decorated Grizzly, Marc’s big brother earned Rookie of the Year honors in 2001 and in 2006 became the first Memphis All-Star. He never quite seemed to capture the hearts of local fans, though. (In some respects, Pau is the anti-Tony Allen.) He remains the franchise’s alltime leader in games (476), points (8,966), and rebounds (4,096).
• RUDY GAY — Climbing the list of “best players to never make the All-Star team,” Gay has hit the heights with Memphis, with more buzzer-beating heroics than any of his teammates. But he’s also hit some lows, missing the franchise-changing playoff run in 2011, and not making the difference many thought he should in the Grizzlies’ opening-round loss to the L.A. Clippers last spring. With a healthy 2012-13 season in Memphis, Gay should pass Pau Gasol atop the franchise’s games played and scoring charts.
• ZACH RANDOLPH — Playing under a new contract in 2011-12, Z-Bo struggled with injuries and missed 38 regular-season games. But when healthy, Randolph has been decisive at both ends of the court. He made the All-Star team in 2010 (his first season with the Grizzlies) and became the first player in franchise history to earn All-NBA honors (3rd team) when he averaged 20.1 points and 12.2 rebounds in 2010-11.
In speaking with local fans, I’ve received a variety of nominees for this hometown Face of the Franchise. I can be persuaded (to a degree), so feel free to chime in with the case for your favorite Grizzly Face. The name of that Face will hit the twitterverse on August 12th.